On April 3, 1872, a fire department was formally organized in what was then called Eugene City, having been named after the town’s founder, Eugene Skinner. The first unit was named the Eugene Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, and was comprised of seven members.
Service on Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was unpaid. The volunteer firefighters, all of whom had full-time occupations, were asked to drop whatever they were doing and answer calls for help at any time of the day or night. To show its appreciation for their dedication and personal commitment, the City began issuing "Exempt Certificates" to all those who had provided at least seven years of service to the company. These certificates exempted the holder from the requirement to serve on jury duty or pay poll and road taxes.
In the early days, funds for the operation of the department were raised by donations from local businesses and citizens. Before long, however, the need for modern equipment and stations was generally recognized. By 1900, the City had purchased four hose carts and constructed four hose stations: at 8th Avenue and Park Street, on Lawrence Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, on East 11th Avenue between Patterson and Ferry Streets, and at 14th Avenue and Columbia Street.
The first hose carts were hand-drawn, which would exhaust at least half the firefighters called by the time they reached the scene. In 1905, the City purchased two horses, Pete and Jerry, to pull one the carts, and this proved so successful that other horses were soon added to the department’s stable. The community conference room at Eugene’s new Downtown Fire Station, which was constructed in 2005, was named the Pete & Jerry Room in honor of the department’s first pair of horses.
The City purchased its first gasoline-powered fire truck in 1913, but not everyone trusted the motorized contraption, and the horses were kept on hand, as a reserve, until 1915.
In the early 1920s the City instituted a full-time, paid professional firefighting force of six firefighters, protecting a population of approximately 18,000.
The Fire Department, along with the City, continued to grow over the next couple of decades, gradually adding firefighters and equipment to respond to the needs of an increasing population. In 1948, Eugene voters approved a bond levy to purchase a new hydraulic aerial ladder truck, build and staff two new substations, expand the fire alarm call-box system, and increase the number of fire hydrants available in the city.
In 1957, following a lengthy community debate, the firefighter work week was reduced from 72 to 56 hours, which it still is today as firefighters work 24 hours on duty and the next 48 off. Two more fire stations were added in 1960, bringing the total to seven. Three more were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Airport Fire Station, which was established in 1981.
Fire Department Joins Forces With EMS
An even greater long-term change for the department occurred in 1981, as the private ambulance company that had been serving the City suddenly abandoned its charge. Invoking several mutual aid agreements, and relying on a contingency plan that involved borrowing personnel and equipment, the Fire Department took over the provision of ambulance service in Eugene, having received only 12 hours’ notice.
No call for paramedic service went unanswered during or after this transition, and in 1985, the department, now known as the Eugene Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department, was honored as the recipient of the prestigious NAEMT national "Paramedic Service of the Year" award.
In the mid-1990s, the Fire & EMS Department was briefly consolidated with the Police Department in a combined Department of Public Safety, but the two departments were separated again in 1997.
Meanwhile, in 1995, Eugene voters again demonstrated their support for fire services by passing a fire redeployment bond authorizing construction of two new fire stations and the current headquarters and training complex at 2nd Avenue and Chambers Street. Those facilities opened in 1998 and 1999.
Developing With the City
By this time the department had grown to more than 180 firefighters plus about 30 non-sworn personnel. Calls were approaching 20,000 per year, and the population of Eugene had risen above 150,000.
In 2002, the decision was made to expand City Fire & EMS services into the Santa Clara area, which was gradually incorporating into the City. This expansion required the transfer of an engine and crew from the Valley River fire station, but that station was restaffed in 2006 through a combination of federal grant funding and local elected official support.
Also in 2002, voters approved a $10-million bond measure for construction of the new Downtown Fire Station at 13th & Willamette plus a $1-million live fire training structure on the drill field at the headquarters complex.
In 2005, the Eugene Fire & EMS Department was accredited by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, joining only about 100 departments in the United Stated to achieve the designation.
The department’s relationship with Springfield Fire & Life Safety in the abutting city has always been strong and mutually supportive. In 2007, the two jurisdictions’ response resources moved beyond automatic aid into a unified operations called the 3-Battalion System (Eugene having two battalions and Springfield one). This was accomplished at practically no taxpayer cost beyond renumbering some stations and apparatus, and yielded dividends immediately in terms of both response and coverage.
Preparing for the Future
In 2009, while struggling with budget difficulties but recognizing future opportunities, the two departments jointly commissioned a study of potential further cooperation. The study recommended that the departments merge, and further, that they then incorporate as a fire service district separate from the two cities. After much discussion, and with the assent of both City Councils, the departments entered into a functional consolidation (combining certain administrative positions and functions) on July 1, 2010. Springfield Fire Chief Dennis Murphy retired, and Eugene Fire Chief Randy Groves was sworn in as Springfield Fire Chief in addition to his Eugene duties.
Prior to Interim Chief Heppel, there were many distinguished Fire Chiefs that each left a legacy that carried the department into the future. The previous Chiefs were:
- 1912-1947 William E. Nusbaum
- 1947-1956 Edward Surface
- 1956-1972 E.L. Smith
- 1972-1992 Everett G. Hall
- 1992-1998 William Bass
- 1998-2000 Interim Chiefs (Groves, Shuler)
- 2000-2006 Thomas Tallon
- 2006-2016 Randall B. Groves
- 2016-2019 Joseph S. Zaludek
- 2019-Present Chris Heppel (Interim)